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“Walter Cronkite is Dead” A World Premiere at Signature Theatre

Special to the Alexandria Times
Jordan Wright
November 14, 2010

Nancy Robinette and Sherri L. Edelen in Walter Cronkite is Dead.Photo credit Scott Suchman.

Nancy Robinette and Sherri L. Edelen in Walter Cronkite is Dead.Photo credit Scott Suchman.

Maggy and Patty don’t like each other very much. They are cut from different cloth. Maggy, played by two-time Helen Hayes award-winner Nancy Robinette, is a tight-lipped, broad-hipped disdainful pedant, whose society roots provide fodder for Patty’s rural Christian-based Tennessee-bred political notions. The setting is the stained glass windows and soft yellow color of the Cesar Pelli-designed National Airport in Washington DC, where our disparate travelers meet when their respective flights have been weather delayed. They share a table and gut-spilling conversation. Patty is hostile to Maggy’s elitism and Maggy to Patty’s boorishness, until they let down their hair after some mutual tippling. Patty bashes the actress, Maggie Smith as being too high-falutin’. Maggy could be Maggie Smith herself.

The wine-swilling Maggy mourns the end of pre-Walter Cronkite days when people dressed properly for dinner and the theatre in gloves and gowns, while the feisty motormouth Patty, played with rat-a-tat timing by Sherri Edelen, bemoans her daughter’s alienation. Country wise Patty is an over-explainer…too much information for the staid Maggy…until they swap the anxieties, failures and neuroses that construct their personal lives and discover that they are not all that dissimilar. Scratch beneath the surface of a middle-aged woman, playwright Joe Calarco seems to say, and you’ll find a lonely, frightened, frustrated widow… in this case two of them.

”Walter Cronkite is Dead” made me nostalgic for the brilliant writing and acting in the old TV sitcom “The Golden Girls”, with its weekly life lessons in men, children, politics, and sex-after-50 as seen through the eyes of Bea Arthur, Betty White, Rue McLanahan and Estelle Getty. And though there are no more seasoned actors than Edelen and Robinette, the comedy here feels strained, as their characters in turn point out each other’s faults and pat each other on the back in dizzying fashion.

Calarco uses a quote from Walter Cronkite to explore the political landscape in his play, “In seeking truth you have to get both sides,” Cronkite sagely said. Yet Calarco pokes and probes our oversimplified media-defined profiles of Red and Blue States and comes up empty-handed. He seems to ask, “Are they really opposites or merely frustrated voters with a different message?” In this play the lines become blurred as the cold hard assumptions Patty and Maggy make about each other are merely glossed over through sympathy or pity.

There is self-examination, as when Maggy’s long-repressed spirit emerges, “I want some chaos in my life,” she pleads. “My borders need to change!” And Patty shows self-determination as she travels without her grown daughter for the first time. But the comedic relief comes with a bittersweet price in this existential exercise being promoted as a comedy.

You may note as I did that Calarco has managed to get his play written, produced, cast, directed, staged, slotted for an opening, and promoted in a major venue in a little over a year since Walter Cronkite passed away. Was he prescient or is it that easy to write and mount these days? Very encouraging for up and coming playwrights! In any case the production is a tribute to his ability and notoriety and that of the two cast members for whom he specifically wrote this piece.

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